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Bullet to the chest spurs a suicide lesson in Utah

Published February 2, 2014 12:20 pm

Health • At town hall in Ogden, survivor shares his story to inspire others.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ogden • It took a bullet passing within one centimeter of his heart to convince Jeremy Stokes, a young northern Utah man with a bright future and broken heart, that he really wanted to live.

On that winter day 10 years ago, he woke up in hospital bed with tubes inserted into his body. He couldn't talk, but he knew sign language and used his hands to communicate with his sister.

"It was a miracle I survived," Stokes, now a 30-year-old father of three, told a suicide prevention town hall Saturday at Ogden High School. "I promised my family I would do whatever it takes to get better."

Utah has a suicide problem, particularly in rural areas and Weber County where rates exceed the state's rate of 21 suicides per 100,000 residents, according to Kristy Jones, of McKay-Dee Hospital community benefits department, who helped lead Saturday's event.

Weber and Davis counties each had 51 suicides in 2012. Statewide, 545 took their lives, making suicide the eighth leading cause of death and giving Utah the nation's seventh highest rate. But for youths, suicide is a leading cause of death, trailing only accidents.

She and colleague Dianna Abel laid out a program called QPR — which stands for Query, Persuade, Refer — to illustrate how anyone with a little empathy can save a life.

"Most suicidal people communicate their intent during the week preceding their attempt," Abel said. "It's a myth that people who talk about suicide don't do it. We need to react seriously every single time."

Preventing suicide is everyone's business and it starts with querying someone who appears to be in trouble, Abel said. Holster advise and judgement.

"Ask direct questions, don't ask it with a 'no' built in," she said. "Try not to act it in a way that closes down communication."

Women account for 60 percent of known suicide attempts, yet 80 percent of suicide deaths are men. This has to do with the lethality of the means the suicidal people choose, Jones said. Firearms are the leading tool in successful suicide attempts in Utah. Other common means are poisoning and suffocation.

Utah's dominant Mormon faith could present a double-edged sword in the suicide question.

"Religion is a resiliency," said Greg Hudnall, Provo School District's associate superintendant. "The challenge is when you fall out of the norm. We aren't very forgiving. Kids can be very cruel and mean spirited and go after those students who act different, dress different."

Up to one-third of Utah's teen suicides are connected with their sexual orientation. Gay and lesbian youth "have a special risk factors because of social issues and worries about family condemnation," Jones said.

Many of those who take their lives are struggling with depression and are trying to cope with serious disruption in their lives.

In Stokes' case, it was painful break-up, coupled with student debt and unstable unemployment, that put him what he described as a rollercoaster that wouldn't stop.

He walked up to a friend's third-floor apartment where his ex-girlfriend was staying. When she wouldn't answer the door, he sat down and put the muzzle to his chest. Then a bullet tore through his chest, narrowly missing ribs, spine and vital tissue. Now Stokes' family calls Feb. 18, the anniversary of his suicide attempt, his second birthday.

"I intend to stick around and live my life to the fullest," he said. "I'll tell my story any chance I get so people hear it and find the help they need before they go as far as I did."

bmaffly@sltrib.com